"What's your name, where are you from, how long are you traveling? Over and over again. Hostels blasting house music, clichéd graffiti on the walls, drunk travelers trying to out-gypsy each other. Am I really doing five more months of this until I see a familiar face?"
Its my last night in Bangkok and I'm having dinner with Scott, an old friend and one of the most experienced travelers I know. I admitted to him I was starting to get weary of this lifestyle, tired of Lonely Planet checklists, people 'doing' an entire country, having the same conversations with 20 year olds on their gap year. Scott laughed and told me I was hitting the four-month mark and it was normal. People start to look and sound the same. I’ve met you before, he would think. Slow down, find a place you like, it will get better.
I headed to Cambodia, thinking a change in scenery would help, but the next few days were filled with insane heat and bad luck. My heat rash had spread and with it came a new rash that turned out to be bed bugs. I got the worst sunburn I've gotten in SE Asia...on my lips. I looked like an off-brand Kardashian, but eating spicy food with sunburned lips isn't so sexy. The power was out in Siam Reap so I cooled off throughout the night by hosing myself down with a bum gun (exactly what it sounds like).
That night as the power came back on, the reports of the earthquake in Nepal came with it. My heart sank as I thought about my two good friends there, Kristen volunteering in Kathmandu and Josh trekking on the Annapurna Circuit. I had a ticket to join them in just a few weeks and had planned on spending five months in Nepal, the longest I was to spend anywhere. As news stories started to gather more information and first hand accounts, the death toll started rising. I began to really panic. The earthquake had been one of the worst in a long time and it had triggered an avalanche on Everest. I reached out to my two friends, our mutual friends, and some family members. I hopped online. Refresh page, refresh page, refresh page. I tried to distract myself by going to the night market in Siam Reap, but was met with the stomach churning mix of drunk, white tourists and Cambodian kids begging for food and something to drink.
I hopped on a bus and headed south, hoping a sleepy river town would provide the quiet and natural beauty I needed to relax. Why was I here? Traveling for the sake of traveling had lost its novelty. I felt like I was stumbling from city to city, meeting the same people in each hostel, crossing things off a list that I didn’t make or care about. I hate small talk and I found myself repeating the same conversation with everyone I met. Was I going to have these same conversations for the next five months, like some sort of endless networking event?
More than that though, the earthquake in Nepal was a poignant reminder of how short life is – so what was I doing? I have an incredible community at home, so many amazing friends and family that I am so proud to call mine. Did I leave them for a bunch of pretty photos?
I missed community. Once I realized it, I felt relieved. Of course I missed community. That's what Scott had been saying. And if I get to pick, why not go with one of my favorite types: climbers. Instead of motorbiking my way up the coast of Vietnam like I had planned, I flew all the way to my final destination in the north of Vietnam: Cat Ba Island. I emailed Asia Outdoors, the biggest adventure tourism company on the island, and asked about volunteering as a climbing guide.
It has been over a month since I showed up here and it has been exactly the antidote I needed to feel like myself again. There is something beautiful and warm about being known. We share rooms, clothes, gear, watch Game of Thrones, push each other on hard sport climbs, sketch out on scary trad, eat, and get drunk together. It's messy and imperfect and just so freaking normal. This was all too good to leave so I renewed my visa and decided to spend a few months here on Cat Ba Island.
I know I am missing seeing most of the sights I'm supposed to see in Vietnam, but I don't care, because this trip is nothing without community.